Ask anyone to name a hardwood, and it’s a safe bet they’ll reply, “Oak.” There are good reasons for this. Of the more than 600 extant species of oak found throughout the Northern Hemisphere, 90 are native to the United States, making the hardy, attractive, and plentiful wood familiar to every American. We’ve been using it for furniture, flooring, paneling, and building ever since the days of the Pilgrims; it’s even the country’s National Tree. If America’s longtime relationship with oak continues to flourish, it’s because today’s architects, designers, and homeowners are constantly finding fresh, inventive ways to use it in contemporary settings. Here are three modern projects that lend a decidedly 21st-century vibe to the venerable hardwood.
Among the late New York City–based architect Ali Tayar’s last projects was a large house in Austin, Texas. Having previously designed a Manhattan loft for the same client, Tayar injected some snappy Big-Apple attitude into the sprawling residence’s laid-back, Lone-Star-State sensibility. Drawing inspiration from the oak-studded Texas landscape, Tayar specified rift-sawn white oak flooring throughout the house. He used the same wood for paneling, built-ins, staircases, trims and moldings, and the custom Arete kitchen cabinetry—the last a minimalist floor-to-ceiling grid of honey-color wood juxtaposed with gleaming stainless-steel appliances and soft-gray marble countertops. The finishing touch: the ceiling lighting’s gridded egg-crate diffusers are made of—what else?—oak.
Oak takes dark stain very successfully, as is demonstrated in a Hollywood Hills, California residence renovated by Griffin Enright Architects. The project includes a new stair that ascends a half-flight through a raised library area to a landing with a glass wall that opens onto the backyard. The library, a platform at one end of the living area, is demarcated from its surroundings by a materials inversion: the living area has ebony-stained oak floors and a white ceiling, while the elevated library has a white epoxy resin floor and ebony-stained oak bookshelves, walls, and ceiling. The contrasting palette helps create a sequester spot for reading, while a dynamic note is supplied by the stair, which has fumed micro maple treads.
Oak plays well with other hardwoods, as Alameda, California–based Burton Architecture shows in the living area of an Oakland residence they recently renovated. Having specified 2¼-inch-wide white oak strips for the floor, which they did not stain but gave a clear urethane finish, the designers chose to clad the walls with planks of unstained alder—a wood with similar honey-blond coloring to the white oak flooring but with less figuration. This mix-and-match strategy gives the room an enveloping, cocoon-like feeling. The mood is further enhanced by the clean-lined fireplace, which has a soft-blue ceramic tile surround and an imposing hearth in the form of a bench-size slab of white Caesarstone. The whole composition is elegant and modern yet warm and welcoming. What more could you ask for?